House Party

Greg Dawson feels right at home with his addiction to HGTV.

Eyes wide in disbelief, Candy straightens up in her comfy spot on the couch and barks at the attractive young couple on the TV screen.

“It’s a vacation home, people!” I harrumph in agreement.

In the market for a getaway, the couple and their four urchins are touring a nicer home than any non-getaway we’ve ever lived in. The spacious lakeside retreat in the Poconos offers a sparkling pool, gorgeous views, and a fabulous kitchen at a pinch-me price of $295,000. And yet, incredibly, the lookers are iffy. The bedrooms were “kind of small—not enough room for bunk beds,” they whine.

“It’s a vacation home, people!”

Welcome to our new addiction: HGTV (Home & Garden Television) with shows like Property Brothers, Love It or List It and House Hunters that feed an ugly but universal appetite for snooping around other people’s homes, observing their private quarrels, and armchair-quarterbacking their decisions, attitudes, and pretty much everything else about their lives.

This Old House meets Housewives meets Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. What’s not to like?

We are not proud that we watch an hour or two of HGTV every day, but we can’t help it and we are not alone. Launched in 1994, HGTV now reaches more than 96 million homes in the U.S. For eight straight years HGTV has been the No. 1 cable channel among upscale (household income 75,000+) women ages 25-54.

But it’s not just numbers. It seems nearly everyone we know watches HGTV. Granted, nearly everyone we know is like us—over 50 and middle or upper-middle income, the network’s target audience. Our family doctor is a fan. At my last appointment he spent 10 minutes showing me the fresh paint job in his waiting room and samples of the laminate and tile he plans to install, inspired by HGTV.

Like my GP, many viewers say they learn things from HGTV that they use in their own projects. Not me. It’s strictly escapist TV for us. We’re there to watch other people work—and especially to watch them make horrible choices we would never make.

“Do they really want to spend the rest of their lives in a house with the bedroom on the third floor?” Candy says, but the bickering couple onscreen is not listening.

I just shake my head. You can’t fix stupid.

Glenn Adamo, 65, and his wife, Lily, 64, watch HGTV at least two hours a day in their Winter Park condo. “I discovered it channel-surfing,” Glenn says. “One show led to another. It’s amusing and entertaining. You’re not going to hear anything bad; it’s not going to be upsetting.”

In short, HGTV is reality television, with all the unreality that entails, starting with the impossibly beautiful hosts who look plucked from a fashion show runway in New York. Take Jonathan and Drew—many female viewers would in a heartbeat. The Property Brothers twins could make Adam Levine put a paper bag over his head.

“Those guys don’t represent what any contractor looks like that I’ve ever seen in my life,” says John Skolfield, co-owner of Skolfield Homes in Winter Park.

Closer to the norm would be Norm Abram, plaid-clad star of This Old House, who looks like the guy behind the paint counter at Home Depot. (David Visentin, the Realtor on Love It or List It, is an outlier in HGTV casting—the apparent love child of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.) HGTV is just real enough to be a factor in the real worlds of real estate and contracting.

“I want to ban HGTV for my clients!” Skolfield jokes. About 30 percent of his clients mention HGTV, which he says understates the time and cost of renovation projects (his specialty). “Everything I saw was a half to two-thirds of the real cost.”

David Welch, a Winter Park-based Realtor, appeared in an episode of House Hunters three years ago. Two-thirds of his clients bring up HGTV at some point.

“One day I was showing a house that was messy and unkempt, and the comment was, ‘This is no way to sell a house. Don’t they watch HGTV?’ ”

With no cable TV in his home, Skolfield didn’t see HGTV until his wife discovered it on vacation in Maine. “In three weeks, she watched 40 to 50 hours” and came home with ideas for “correcting” their home, he says.

Candy and I can relate to her binge-watching, more so these last few months. You can take only so much of the real world imploding on CNN before clicking to HGTV for a numbing infusion of reality lite.

On House Hunters International, David and Rene are shopping for a vacation home in Costa Rica.

“I love the colors,” Rene says as they enter a condo painted in blues and greens.

“I don’t like the colors,” David says.

 Candy rolls her eyes and leans toward the TV.

“It’s exactly the color of your shirt!” 

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